California’s Adaptation Clarion Call

By Sara S. Moore

 ”Decision makers must expect to be surprised with increasing frequency.”  

National Research Council 2009 report, Informing Decisions in a Changing Climate, as paraphrased by Alice Hill, Senior Advisor for Preparedness and Resilience, White House National Security Council.

“Plan for surprises” is a sentiment I’ve seen expressed in various contexts regarding climate change, and it was repeated last week at the California Adaptation Forum’s second day opening plenary by Obama advisor, Alice Hill. It was a laugh-line. Surprises, by definition, can’t be planned for.

In a graduate seminar on climate change adaptation in 2010—amid complaints about the popular denial of climate change—I asked my classmates: who has an earthquake kit at home? Two out of ten. I would revise the National Research Council’s order: “decision makers must expect human denial of the element of surprise.”

The California Adaptation Forum (CAF) was a clarion call organized in Sacramento (Aug. 19-20, 2014) to shake California’s political decision makers out of denial and into action.

California has been a world leader on climate change mitigation, aggressively regulating and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a push initiated by State Senator Fran Pavley with her landmark bills in the Assembly, AB 32  (2006) and AB 1493 (2009). I visited Senator Pavley in her office in 2012 to ask her if she had heard anything from her constituents about climate change impacts or was otherwise aware of these impacts and considering any legislative responses. From her response, I got the impression she is still at square one fighting the “climate change is real” battle in her political circles.

So, two years later at the CAF, a few blocks from Senator Pavley’s office, I was pleased to hear eminent state leaders on greenhouse gas reduction like the California Air Resources Board’s Chairman, Mary Nichols, and the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research Director, Ken Alex, talk about the importance of preparing for climate threats. The 816 registrants from a breadth of sectors and local to international-level organizations attended 38 sessions and four plenary panels over two days, organized by the Local Government Commission, a private non-profit, in partnership with the State of California. One third of the attendees represented either local or state government offices. Another third represented nonprofit organizations, many of which work closely with local government. Academic representatives came in at 5% of the attendees.

Of the four large adaptation-specific conferences I’ve attended in recent years this was the first emphasizing local solutions at every opportunity. The others I’ve attended (Three Degrees in 2009; the Second International Climate Change Adaptation Conference in 2012; the U.S. National Adaptation Forum in 2013) all featured an initial presentation of the scariest, latest scientific findings with the bottom line “Did you think we were screwed? Well now you know we are.” We dwelt in the shadow of those projections through the rest of the conference.  Rightly or wrongly, the CAF downplayed the role of climate science.

An aside: there was one science-focused session in the program— I was proud to be the moderator of a panel on the connection between fog and climate change, focusing on its importance as a source of water and cooling. The four scientists on the panel were determined to keep the mood light and positive, featuring fog special effects from a block of dry ice and carafes of hot water, but still got down to the question of whether winds driving upwelling and intensifying fog will outrun climate warming, which may be reducing fog (a trend that has been traced over the past 50 years on the California coast by Johnstone and Dawson, 2010).

Mainly, the CAF sessions presented stories from the field—active projects, lessons learned. The sessions I attended were accessible and interactive, all allowing between 10-30 minutes for questions. Colleagues echoed my impression that attendees had their ears open, were using their beginner-mind (not expert-mind), and didn’t push individual agendas. Their attitude was “I’m here to learn if I can. I’m here to help if I can.”

The California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird’s morning address on day two was the highlight of the conference for me. Secretary Laird described specific situations from his past as a local politician when he had to push back against angry constituents to make the right decision for the long-term health and safety of his community, such as closing a structurally vulnerable community services center in anticipation of a storm despite strong protests; the storm caused the roof to collapse and his constituents thanked him for not backing down. Laird also communicated a vivid framework for organizing in anticipation of climate change by talking about his time as executive director of the Santa Cruz AIDS Project in the early 1990s, having to assemble resources in advance of things getting worse. Think about it: what did community organizers do in the AIDS crisis? They did mass, urgent, public education targeted to the most vulnerable; created a professional specialization to push research to the edge; made community art—like the AIDS Quilt—displaying visible, clear, accessible representations of the losses already happening, warning against complacence; and aggressively raised funds to create institutions to support the victims and their loved ones. What if we did the same for climate change? What would our quilt look like?

As for what’s next for California, Michael McCormick from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, one of the state partners who developed the CAF with the Local Government Commission, reports:

…[t]he State will be working with the Local Government Commission to distill what we heard into some near term actions that focus on cross-sector/cross-organizational strategies. We’ll also continue working together to ensure the momentum started here will continue towards the 2015 National Adaptation Forum and the 2016 California Adaptation Forum.